Many photographers have a difficult time learning how to pose group portraits. The challenge, of course, is that you must apply all of the techniques used to pose a single person—but on multiple subjects and simultaneously. Additionally, you must ensure that the assembled group, as a whole, looks both cohesive and appealing. A final consideration is that the portrait must reflect the relationship between the subjects—whether they are business partners, members of a family, or school friends.
DETERMINE WHO WILL BE IN THE PORTRAIT
The first question when posing a single person is the end use for the portrait. The first question to ask when photographing a group session is who will be in the portrait. If your session invoice simply states that there will be two people meeting you at the park, you don’t have much to go on. They could be an older couple, folks who might have a hard time getting into poses on location. They could be sisters, in which case you would want to show the closeness between them—but that would be a different kind of closeness than you’d want in a portrait of a young couple in love. It would also be different than if you were photographing a mother and baby. The individuals in the portrait and their relationship will determine how you pose them and at what height or position (standing, sitting, or on the ground).
The coordination of color and tone between the subject and the scene, as well as between the people within the group, increases in importance with the number of people in the group. It is possible to create an appealing portrait with two people wearing contrasting tones or colors, but it is impossible to do this with a group of ten or twelve people. With the reduced facial size, the viewer’s eyes will be drawn to the contrasts in clothing tones or colors, and not to the subjects’ faces.
Clothing selection is important. In this image, all but one subject wore green. The mismatched shirt had to be retouched to create the image seen here. Remember to advise your clients that ignoring your advice about clothing suggestions may result in additional retouching fees.
It is best to talk with the principal female in the group and explain how important color and tone coordination is. Typically, they will help make sure everyone dresses similarly, and often buy matching clothing for the group. While color and tone are important, so is the style of the clothing. You can’t have everyone in sweaters and one person in a t-shirt or shirt and tie. The style needs to be similar and should be coordinated to the style of scene, pairing casual styles of clothing with typical outdoor scenes and dressier clothing with more formal locations.
The one time that contrasting clothing is appropriate is when very small children or babies are to be photographed with full-grown people. In this case, having them dressed in contrasting color or tones helps draw the viewer’s eyes to these very small people in a very large world. Without contrasting colors or tones, the family members (especially the mothers) often feel like the babies are lost in the overall grouping.
Creating a head-and- shoulders image of the same subjects requires more than just zooming in. The young ladies had to be re-posed in order to bring their heads closer together.
Before planning the poses for the group, you need to decide how the portrait will be composed. Will it be a waist-up shot? A head-and-shoulders? A full-length? In a portrait of a single person you can easily go from a head-and-shoulders to a full-length image without changing the pose; you just change the focal length of the lens. This isn’t usually possible with larger numbers of people, so you’ll need to have your goal in mind before you start arranging the group.
Choose a Basic Structure. I see many group photos that look more like a mob of people waiting for tickets to go on sale than a close, loving family. To combat this, you need to start with some kind of structure while building your compositions for groups. You can then modify the structure once the basic composition has been achieved. This is much better than having no
composition at all.
A basic pyramid composition, with the tallest person in the center and the heads gently sloping down to either side, is a simple starting place for groups. To modify that basic structure and achieve a more interesting look, break the straight line of the downward angles by posing some of the heads below or above the distinct downward lines of the pyramid. This gives the composition the basic pyramid structure without the “old school” look.
If I am going for structure with a linear composition, I actually like using diagonal compositions more than pyramids. In these compositions, the heads are arranged so that they create a line that slopes across the frame. This is very effective in small groups like sisters, brothers, or small families.
Here is a more interesting variation. Mom and Dad are in the center, flanked by their sons. From left to right, the pose has three faces in a downward-sloping diagonal line. The last face, however, is brought back up almost to the level of the face on the far left. This creates a mirrored effect that is very engaging.Ground the Pose. I like to see groups with at least some of the members on or near the ground. This softens the look of a more traditional portrait and doesn’t give the stuffy and stiff look of everyone standing in a basic pyramid. Even when the clothing and setting are more elegant, I generally don’t like to see everyone standing in order of height or on stairs. I want to break up the straight line with people in seated poses to lower their heads.
My favorite way to arrange a group is to start out on the ground and build the composition up person by person. This gives me the creative freedom to pose each person effectively as an individual, but also to come up with interesting compositions that don’t follow the pyramid lines.
Getting at least one member of the family down to ground level helps make the image look more relaxed.
Head Height and Proximity. The correct facial height and proximity depends on the number of people in the group and how large of an area you want to use for a background. When posing a couple or small group, if I decide to compose the portrait closer up (showing from the waist up for each member of the group), I position the eyes of one person at about the mouth level of the next person as I am building the composition. With larger groups, it is often impossible to put each face at a different level. Instead, you will simply create some basic posing structures (lines, pyramids, etc.) with some modifications and variations here and there to add some style.
In a typical portrait of a couple or group, the subjects are touching—usually with their bodies overlapping a bit. If, however, a family group wants to show their home, horses, cars, tractor, or the ocean in the background, you may need to have several feet between each family member to create an effective composition.Whether the individuals are closely packed or spread out,however, the key is that they should all be approximately the same distance from each other. If one person is visually farther from the group than the others, it will look like he doesn’t belong.
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